by Ben Taylor
January to March 2021
The early months of 2021 saw rising alarm in Tanzania over a possible new wave of Coronavirus infection, with anecdotal evidence from hospitals and other sources across the country suggesting a rise in case numbers. Nevertheless, throughout January the government continued to insist that the country had defeated the pandemic. No new data on case numbers or fatalities was reported (as has been the case now for over 12 months).
And more significantly, the government signalled that it had no intention of participating in COVAX, the international effort to supply Coronavirus vaccines to developing countries. On February 1st, the Minister of Health, Social Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Dr Dorothy Gwajima, said the government had no plans of procuring the Covid -19 vaccine which is already in use in other countries, and Tanzania was conspicuous by its absence from the initial COVAX distribution list, published on February 3rd. It was (and remains) unclear whether the country would even license the vaccines, which would allow private hospitals to import the vaccine and individual citizens to get vaccinated.
“The ministry has its own procedure on how to receive any medicines and we do so after we have satisfied ourselves with the product,” said the Minister. This came a week after President Magufuli warned the ministry of the danger of foreign vaccines, doubting their effectiveness and saying they came with ulterior motives.
Instead, the ministry encouraged people to take other precautions against “viral infections”, without specifically mentioning Covid-19: “We must improve our personal hygiene, wash hands with running water and soap, use handkerchiefs, herbal steam, exercise, eat nutritious food, drink plenty of water, and natural remedies that our nation is endowed with because we have quite many of these natural remedies, ”said Dr Gwajima. “Through the Chief Government Chemist, the Ministry has been working to inspect a number of natural remedies that have met the safety standards for use, are already in use and they have helped Tanzanians, including me and my family.”
A few weeks into February, however, there were signs that the government was edging towards an acceptance that the virus was still present and causing serious problems, perhaps pressed to do so by the growing weight of evidence.
The illness of the Vice President of Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad, who was admitted to hospital with respiratory problems on January 31st after testing positive for Covid-19, and passed away on February 17th (see obituaries section), made the true situation harder to deny. On February 11th, an MP from the ruling CCM party, Zacharia Isaay, spoke in parliament to express concerns at the alarming number of “pneumonia” patients in his constituency – concerns that were echoed by other MPs.
Around the same time, several other prominent figures passed away, all with symptoms consistent with the Coronavirus. This includes Prof. Benno Ndulu, former Governor of the Bank of Tanzania, and the Chief Secretary, Amb. John Kijazi (see obituaries section). Tanzania Episcopal Conference (the Roman Catholic church in Tanzania) reported that more than 25 priests, 60 sisters and two elders of the laity had died within the past two months of various causes including respiratory challenges.
On February 20th, amid claims of a worrying rise in cases and deaths attributable to the pandemic, the government announced measures to contain the spread of the virus. In contrast to its previous stance, the government now asked Tanzanians to adopt preventive measures: prayer, handwashing, sanitisers, face masks, physical exercise, shielding for the vulnerable, improved diets and traditional remedies, but no lockdown measures.
The same day, President John Magufuli told worshipers at the Roman Catholic St Peter’s Parish in Dar es Salaam that Tanzanians should take precautions against the Coronavirus. He stated that the government hasn’t prohibited the use of face masks in the war against Covid-19, but stressed however that locally made masks – especially those from the Medical Stores Department (MSD) – should be used rather than imported masks. And he advised people to adopt traditional methods of containing respiratory diseases, including steam treatment, and to avoid fear which can itself have negative impacts. He reiterated that Tanzanians must continue to put their trust in God.
Also on the same day, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called upon Tanzania to take “robust action” to combat Covid-19. He noted that a number of Tanzanians travelling to neighbouring countries and beyond have tested positive for the coronavirus. “This underscores the need for Tanzania to take robust action both to safeguard their own people and protect the population beyond,” he said. “This situation remains very concerning. I renew my call for Tanzania to start reporting Covid-19 cases and share data.”
Two days later, on February 23rd, Minister Finance and Planning, Dr Philip Mpango, held a dramatic press conference from a lobby area within Benjamin William Mkapa Hospital in Dodoma, where he himself had been receiving treatment. Clearly exhausted, and coughing and crying as his spoke, he praised the hospital and its doctors for keeping him alive, and President Magufuli for his support. He spoke of having needed oxygen, but did not mention the Coronavirus by name.
By mid-March, however, events took a different turn. The possibility of President Magufuli changing course began to be overshadowed by the fact that he had not been seen in public since February 27th. Rumours around his own health began to grow.
Coronavirus update – April 2021
On April 6, President Samia Suluhu Hassan (see main article) announced what could be the start of an attempt to change the government’s stance on the pandemic. She stated her intention to form a committee of experts to professionally assess the state of the Covid-19 pandemic and advise the government on the way forward.
“We cannot isolate ourselves as if we are an island, but also we cannot accept everything brought to us. We cannot continue just reading about Covid-19 worldwide, but Tanzania is all blank – it makes no sense.”
Two weeks later, the President spoke at a national conference organised by religious leaders to remember ex-President John Magufuli and pray for the new leaders. She called on religious leaders to advise worshippers to take precautionary measures against the virus, and also reported that the committee of experts had been formed.
“I’m expecting to meet its members and representatives of the Ministry of Health and those from the Ministry of Finance and Planning in the near future in order to establish the way forward,” she said.
At the time of writing (April 27), the committee is yet to report, and no substantive change of policy has been introduced. There has been no new release of data on testing, for example, and no change in the country’s position regarding vaccines.